Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Teaching My Husband English

Before Islam, I didn't have any sisters.  Now I have so many alhumdulillah. This is not just hyperbole but a real truism.  The bond between believers is stronger than even blood relationships.  We are like spokes on the same wheel; united and each making each other stronger.

My sister Jaime, on Memoirs from Morocco, and I will be writing Sister Spoke on the first of every month inshahallah.  There will be one topic which we pick.  This month it is "Teaching My Husband English".  Both she and I will post the topic on the first and then write our own thoughts about it.  You'll be able to read each of our blogs and if you wish you can add comments or even links to your own blog entry.  Make your posting be authentically yours but then entitle it the same as the others.

Previously, I had the opportunity to marry lawyers, doctors, mechanical engineers, professors and business owners who all spoke very good English.  These men were born overseas but they had assimilated to American ways and they were adept at not only my language but the nuances of communication itself. 

I didn't marry any of them.

Instead, I married a man who spoke only a little English which matched perfectly with my little Arabic.  This was not my plan but rather God's plan.  I went along with what seemed to be my naseeb; my destiny and looked forward to acquiring that eventual hindsight.  Why would God put together two halves who were unable to understand each other?

We struggled.

Ahmed would often tell me in Arabic,

"You don't understand me."

I would chime in, "But if I understand you SAYING that I don't understand you then I DO understand you!"

We would have these long conversations which were the polar opposite of succinct.  The long and winding road led through our everday chit-chats.  We didn't often use dictionaries. We simply suffered through.  Sometimes, I would look things up on the computer to just show him a picture.

"Ahhhhhhh!"  He would get the lightbulb moment and we'd be in sync once again.

At first, I tried my teacherly approach to learning with high usage word cards.  I would drill him.  Together we'd make some sentences on the rug.  He would get some sense of English but it wasn't working as well as I had hoped.

Then, I realized that he was this smart guy but a horrible student.  He was easily distracted.  I actually talked to his eldest brother about my problems getting my husband to focus.  It was like a parent-teacher conference about the naughty boy except it was my husband!

After realizing what a troublemaker I was married to, I changed my tact.  I would not be sitting with him for a long period of time. I would do an intense 15-minute session.  I set my cell phone to go off and until that tone signalled us, my husband was committed to paying attention. 

It worked!  For someone who could not handle long stretches of study, this was a good solution.  Every day I grabbed that little bit of time.  We worked for a few weeks this way until he felt overwhelmed.  Learning a new language is overwhelming.

Sure, he had learned English in school.  All Egyptians learn English but they don't learn it conversationally.  They can conjugate and tell you about the past participle in the indefinate form but they can't speak extemporaneously to save their life.  Only the students who go to private international schools can excel on that level.  My husband was not as fortunate to have that education.

There was a moment in his life when his father was sick and unable to afford school for my husband.  It was a small amount of money.  It was probably the amount the rich parents at school spent on the birthday cake today.  Yet, for the lack of that money my husband was unable to keep attending.

God did not forget my husband.  In fact, God knew my husband's intellect was able to be challenged; that he could learn and grow.  So, God sent him an English teacher of his very own.  Me!

Yet, learning a language takes time.  It cannot just be stuffed and stuffed until all the nouns and adjectives are properly in place.  It takes years for the synapses fire correctly.  Really?  It is like building a new bridge in your man's brain.  That is no small feat!

I taught him opposites.   Those are helpful when trying to figure out what in the world each other is trying to say.  Is it big or small?  Knowing the opposites helps define.

I taught him some basic sentences like, "I have to ..."  or  "I need to..." 

I taught him polite phrases like,

"Excuse me, could you please..."

I taught him sweet words like,

"You are the light of my life."

One of the benefits to him not really having advanced English courses is that he never got the Arablish accent. Sure, he still tends to say, "Sank you" instead of "Thank you," and "peans" instead of "beans."

Yes, there was a horrible time when we invited a nice French tourist couple over for dinner and he asked,

"Would you like peans?"

 It didn't sound right.  It sounded very, very wrong.  The look on their faces was priceless and my hub corrected himself right away.  We still laugh about that to this day.

The two of us laugh alot as we learn.  Maybe I should re-emphasize that I'm learning Arabic as he's learning English.  Oh, we're not able to learn at the same time but within our day-to-day lives we are increasing our knowledge of each other's mother tongue.  We both know that it's hard to learn but it's fun.

It's fun to create our own little world.  We have more inside jokes than I think I've ever had with anyone else in my life.  We have these special word associations with people and places and things.  We use everything we've got to figure out what's going on.  I think we've even done mind reading a few times.  And that effort has deepened our connection and deepened our love and respect for each other.

Lately, I've been using a CD-ROM from Transparent English to teach him.  It's not perfect.  I like authentic language better than stilted pre-fab textbook conversations. 

"The bridge is the quickest way."

The intriguing aspect to this is that Ahmed gets to record his voice and see the results on the screen.  Did he or didn't he match his vocal pattern to the native speaker?  I can work with him to help him improve and he is seeing immediate results.  It's also good to have a male voice as his model because frankly men learning from women can get them sounding wussy (and vice versa with women learning from men sounding too butch).

There is a more I'll write later.

To tell you the honest, the news out of Port Said, Egypt is too sad to think clearly any more.  May Allah help us to think clearly in times of chaos and uncertainty.

After a day of being with small children (and a night getting over a headache...maybe those two things are somehow related), I am back.  My mother gave me some sage words of wisdom,

"Each day we have to resurrect ourselves."

So, here I am again.  Glad you're here too.

Teaching YOUR Husband
to Speak English
O     Keep the mood upbeat, quick-paced, positive and relaxed.  We all learn more when we are feeling comfortable.  Do not stress on the amount he isn't learning.  This is a process which takes time and not a product for which you can push a button and receive.

O     Saving face in Non-Western countries is extremely important.  Be careful to find quiet times alone to correct his poor pronunciation, grammar, or word choices.  Be judicious!  You want communication not annihilation.  His allowing of a subservient role (student) to your role of power (teacher) must be dealt with lovingly.  Don't take advantage of this temporary time by figuratively rapping his knuckles with the ruler.

O     Listen to his needs for learning.  Whatever it is that YOU want to teach will not be as important to him as what HE wants to learn.  Maybe he loves Clint Eastwood movies, so help him mimic a few lines.  Maybe he would love to make dawaah so teach him some phrases which can teach others about Islam.  Think of who he is and the interests he has then manipulate the material so he enjoys what he's learning.

O     Think of his actual listening audience.  If he never has much use for English except for you, then tailor your lessons to things that you two need to talk about.  Maybe the two of you have children together.  What does he need tell them?  Or maybe he would like to say a few pleasantries to your mom on the phone.  Tailor his learning to how he can immediately use it and get gratification for it. 

O     We learn best by creating areas in our memory rather than scattering information randomly.  If you are going to teach him a word or phrase, associate it to something else either by category ( like "setting the table") or by rhyme (spoon, moon, honeymoon, etc.). 

O     Don't fill his head up with spelling.  He won't be using it any time soon.  It doesn't matter how English looks.  Focus on the sounds; the phonics. 

O     In Arabic, there is no "p" so they will use "b" as a substitute.  Work with creating a soft sound with more air to acheive "p".

O     In Arabic, there is no "v" so they will substitue "f".  Work on dental placement; the top teeth are placed on the lower lip and it's a harder sound with more air. 

O     In Arabic, "th' gets substituted with "s".  Work on tongue placement.  Show how we almost bite our tongue to produce that airy consonnate cluster.

O     English teachers here confuse the NAME of the letter and the SOUND of the letter.  The name is "es" the sound is "sss".  You'll have to un-teach him saying esss-school, esss-snoopy, essss-summer.  Start with voicing "sssss and then finish the word.  Don't allow the esss-stupid mistake to continue.

O     Arabic does not have emphasis on syllables.  Each syllable gets equal weight.  When speaking in English, we usually hit the first syllable harder:  BIcycle, DOCtor, BEAUtiful.  Actually have him hit his fist in the air (using kinesthetics) as he practices that first syllable emphasis.  In compound words, it is the first word:  LAPtop, BEDspread, SUNset.

O     For English, his mouth needs to be open bigger than for Arabic.  Typically, the vowels will sound the worst unless he lowers his jaw more.  One way to help him understand is to show how we should be able to fit a height of two fingers between our lips when we speak English.  In the beginning, he might only be able to fit one.  Using a mirror a few times might help him visual this as well.

O     The vowels A, E, I, O, U are hardest for everyone to differentiate.  There's long and short; long is the actual name of the letter and short is as in: cat, egg, it/in, on/off, cut up.  Repeat those same words to help clue him in when you are learning new words.   

O     Using kinesthetics as much as possible will help words and meanings stick in his hand.  Encourage hand gestures, miming, pointing to real-life objects, or pictures (not as effective as real-life objects).  This is also helpful later when he needs to use the language as communication is not through our voices alone.

O     Do not unnaturally break down the word into slow motion letter sounds:  bah-ruh-ahhhhh-kuh.  No.  The word is one syllable and sounds like, "break".  Say it the way you normally would while you are teaching. 

O     For words with more syllables, like "family" be careful that you don't teach it as:  fam-i-ly.  It is pronounced as only two syllables:  fam-ly.  A common mistake is the word, "uncomfortable".  Foreign speakers of English tend to say it as they see it:  un-com-fort-able.  The word is actually:  un-comf-table.

O     Those long words can be hard to pronounce!  So build them up backwards:  ment, partment, Apartment.  Go back to the last successful combination if he has trouble and re-build from that moment.

O     Numbers!  They all end in the letters "ty" but do not all sound the same.  Remember to teach actual spoken sounds.  It's twen-ty, thir-dy, for-dy, fif-ty, six-ty, seven-ty, eigh-ty, nine-ty. 30 and 40 have a different second syllable than the others.

O     Past tense of -ed isn't always pronounced the same.  For exmaple, "talked" and "walked" actually take on the sound "t" at the end.

O     Teach modals.  Teach these polite ways of talking right away because it completely changes the perception people will have of your husband.  "Could you please...?"  "Would it be alright...?"  "May I...?" 

Please let me know in the comments if there is anything you think I've neglected to mention.  I can always add more.  This is not a complete list but rather just a starting point. 

Best wishes helping both your husband and your marriage.  Bilingual communication has so many benefits which will increase understanding from both sides.  May Allah reward both husband and wife for your efforts.


Um Dayo said...

My husband always says I haven't taught him enough English, only because he is used to "teaching" involving textbooks and quizzes. I teach him a new phrase or explain an american slang word like everyday! ha ha. And I know what you mean by mind-reading! Sometimes, and I'm not kidding, he will say something like, "Honey, where is the thing for the thing? You know? You put it in the thing and it works?" And I'll reply "It's on the thing!" and only he and I know what "the thing"'s in the situation are! ha ha Or like how we have catch phrases from Muhammad's Saad's movies we use all the time. "Bullabeef me, honey. Bullabeef me!" (I hope you get that!)

MarieHarmony said...

Very nice post Yosra. I can relate to it so many ways.
When I met my husband, his English was very poor. At some stage I thought "how this is going to work?"
Same as your husband he did not get a chance to get a higher education, his father died he was eight, the only boy of the family.

Slowly but surely he progresses but I will definitely use some of your ideas as he is willing to learn more and more, to speak with ease and to gain in confidence.

I understand when you talk about inside jokes, because we have many, words we do not understand well and funny memories. When we first met he used to call me "honey" and I understood it as "Annie", thinking deep down "what is this guy who can't remember my name"!!!

I can't wait to read the next part. In the meantime let's pray for the many lives taken, this awful tragedy that just happened in Port Said.
Take care

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom UmDayo and Maire,

Nice to have both of you stopping by and adding to the topic.

UmDayo, I totally know what you mean about worksheets being GOOD teaching (to non-Westerners) and real life being somehow not really learning. I had to cope with teaching adult Somalis emergency English and they wanted to have work on paper soooo badly. NOPE! I wanted them in pairs, small groups and giving presentations.

Love the know the thing we to that thing. LOL!

Got "bullabeef me" though it took me a minute. LOL! I also love Mohamed Saad's Limby. My fave Limby-ism is "Facefook". It really is sooo "Facefook".

Glad you liked the post, Maire :) It really is a challenge to marry a man who might never gain more English than he has at your wedding. It's a problem! Alhumdulillah that we both could overcome the problem.

Alhumdulillah that Allah sent caring, patient women to your hub and mine who could teach them better than anyone at their school.

LOL at "Annie".

I want to hear from you again once you read my tips for teaching English. See what was something new or something you have tried.

Ya Rab that the tragedy in Egypt doesn't lead to more tragedies. Thanks for caring :)

Anonymous said...

Nice Post! I ran into your blog as I was searching "how to teach your partner English", but most posts have been about teaching the wife. Yours I can totally relate to because my husband speaks farsi and we have some of the same linguistic limitations i.e. pronouncing "school" as "ESchool" and so on.
thanks for this, look forward to more from you on this.
- Saba